The Sand Castle
Sometimes, you can judge a book by it’s cover. In this case, the front cover of the book in question depicts two women in bathing caps and red lipstick and resembles a scene from an Esther Williams movie. The opening paragraphs of Rita Mae Brown’s The Sand Castle establish a short story encompassing a memorable day at the beach, as recalled through the eyes of seven-year-old Nickel Smith, a child with a sharp eye and ear attuned to the events and conversations taking place in the adult world surrounding her.
Nickel, her cousin Leroy, her Aunt Louise and her mother have made a day trip to the beach to lift their spirits after the recent loss of Leroy’s mother (and Louise’s daughter), Ginny. Nickel is attentively listening to her mother and Aunt’s conversation as they navigate their way to the beach in the “new black Nash with the dull gray interior.”
In the tale, Brown relies heavily on period specific dialogue and detail to establish the setting and characters in her story. The Hunsenmeirs are glamorous, independent, bickering but loving Chesterfield-smoking sisters. Julia, Nickel’s mother, is the sassy younger sister, provocatively cursing, mocking and otherwise provoking Louise. Louise, the dour older sibling, has sought solace in religion since her daughter’s death, taking all opportunities to quote scripture to her family.
Throughout the story, the author relies on telling over showing, employing long passages of overdrawn script-like dialogue between the sisters to fill out the narrative. Observations about the main characters and the larger family dynamics are relayed to the reader from Nickel’s point of view, which is far too astute and complete for a young child, even a precocious one. Passages such as “Mother, sidestepping the bait for a fight dangled by her older sister-just how much older also a ripe subject for contention,” render the tale more trite than heartwarming.
Allow me to conclude by employing another well worn phrase or cliché: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Brown’s account of a family affected by grief made me ask “So what?” at the story’s end. I do not believe angst is more worthy of literary attention than happiness or humour. While the light tone itself makes this work distinctive, due to the pedestrian pace of the story, lack of revelation, or change in any of the characters, the work is only the sum of its parts. This brief read merits borrowing from the library for reading on your own beach holiday.